Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176

House by Tracy Kidder is a novel about family's plan for constructing their first house. The novel articulates the perspectives and sentiments of three groups involved in the house's creation: the customers, the carpenters, and the architect. The setting is in New England, which has a long tradition of carpentry...

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House by Tracy Kidder is a novel about family's plan for constructing their first house. The novel articulates the perspectives and sentiments of three groups involved in the house's creation: the customers, the carpenters, and the architect. The setting is in New England, which has a long tradition of carpentry and home building.

Although the novel accurately portrays the process of building a house, the novel is also an analogy for the American dream. Each of the group has their own vision and ideas about building the house. The architect represents the Enlightenment Era, in which aesthetic and grandiose vision of the house is put on a pedestal. The carpenters are more pragmatic and are concerned with capital. The prospective owners have various ideas on how they want the house to be and are worried about budget management.

In a sense, the house can be seen as a modern-day American Tower of Babel, in which various groups try to build it to reach some higher goal, but have too many miscommunication issues to complete the project.

House

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 283

HOUSE is a factual narrative detailing the construction of a moderately expensive single-family house near Amherst, Massachusetts. Tracy Kidder provides considerable detail about the mechanics of construction, but his focus is on the interaction among the architect, the contractors, and the couple building the house. The humor as well as the anxiety involved in the process are clear, but Kidder never descends to the fatuous exaggerations of such previous books on the subject as MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE.

The building of this house involves a continuing series of negotiations among the parties involved. All of them are deeply committed to the success of the project, all of them are conscientious and responsible, all of them give their best efforts. Inevitable difficulties, however, arise. There is faulty communication between architect and builders. There is conflict between the clients’ desire for economy in construction and the builders’ reluctance to use any but the best materials and methods. At the same time, at a crucial point, the builders refuse for their own financial reasons to upgrade the level of materials specified in the contract. Above all, there are the tensions created by the very different personalities and the conflicting interests of the people involved. When the house is at last finished, all parties are pleased with the completed work, but all feel lingering dissatisfactions.

Kidder does a superb job of showing how these interactions affect the process. All of the individuals are presented in depth, so that their actions are clearly understandable. The major achievement of the book is to show that mutual good will, craftsmanship, conscientiousness, and a common goal can result in a successful cooperative endeavor, despite differences in personalities and ideas.

House

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1954

Tracy Kidder has already won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book, The Soul of a New Machine (1982). A new prize will have to be invented to recognize the greater achievement of House, a fascinating multilevel account of that most fundamental and most complex of human activities, the construction of a family’s dwelling.

House opens with a surveyor marking the site for a house to be built for Jonathan and Judith Souweine near Amherst, Massachusetts. It closes with an epilogue noting that the design for the house has won for its architect, William Rawn, a prestigious prize from the Boston Society of Architects, and that both Souweines and Jim Locke, one of the builders, were present at the awards ceremony. Between these events, Kidder tells the complex and surprisingly suspenseful story of exactly what goes into the building of a house: the materials, the hard work, the ideas, the conflicts, the money.

There is considerable factual detail in House: A two-story house of average size will require seventy-five thousand nails; the notation “S Dry S4S” on a piece of spruce balsam fir means that it is “surface dry” (less than 20 percent water content) and has been planed smooth on all four sides. In a fine sequence, Kidder juxtaposes Henry David Thoreau’s famous brief list of the materials and costs of his cabin at Walden with an incredibly long and detailed list of the various materials that go into the Souweine house; Thoreau’s injunction to “simplify, simplify” can no longer be applied to house building. There are also detailed descriptions of the problems of building a stairway that has two landings and, even worse, the attendant problems of constructing satisfactory newel posts and a bannister. Kidder provides relevant historical material concerning the lumber industry, fashions in the design of houses (the Souweines’ is in the recently popular Greek Revival style), and the history of building contracts, especially the legal ramifications of the standard contractual phrase “in a workmanlike manner.”

The center of interest, however, is the entire process of building, in which the personalities involved are more important than the materials. Kidder, whether by good luck or by careful planning, found an unusual and interesting group of people to work with, and he wisely focuses his attention on them. The Souweines are alumni of the counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Jonathan had been politically involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement; more recently he worked for a Ralph Nader-type public interest organization, and, after moving to Amherst, ran for district attorney, winning a surprising primary victory but losing the general election. Now he is an increasingly successful lawyer. He remains socially concerned, but he can be very tough in his bargaining with the men who are building his house. Judith has her doctorate degree and a teaching job, represents her teachers’ union in negotiations, and hopes to be a representative at the Amherst Town Meeting. Kidder’s early description of them holds true: “They have a fine, sturdy marriage, which is more than a marriage. It is an enterprise. They make a formidable combination. They are decisive. They know their own minds. And they knew what they wanted in a house.”

What they wanted in a house is provided, in part, by the architect, Bill Rawn. Always fascinated by building, he first earned a law degree, then ignored the law and had considerable success as a graphic artist before entering state government at a high level. He gave up art and government to attend architecture school and had a meteoric career with a large firm before leaving to set up his own office. The Souweine house is his first independent project. Rawn wants to provide a livable house for the Souweines, who have been his friends for many years, but he also wants the house to be a work of art, and the two desires do not always mesh. Because he works out of Boston and takes on other jobs while this house is being built, he does not always get detailed plans and specifications to the builders on time, and he is not always pleased with modifications they make. As Kidder observes, “The relationship between an architect and builders can explore the limits of sympathy in sympathetic people. It is not in either party’s interest to understand the other one’s too well.”

The builders are Apple Corps, a cooperative of four men who share the work and the profits equally. On each of their jobs, one man acts as contractor, making estimates, drawing up lists of materials, providing schedules, handling negotiations with the architect and the clients. Jim Locke has these responsibilities on the Souweines’ house. His choice of physical labor for a career is part of his rebellion against his father, a famous and successful lawyer; the fact that Jonathan Souweine is also a lawyer helps to account for the undercurrent of hostility that runs between Souweine and Jim Locke. Richard Gougeon is from the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, a descendant of French-Canadians; dyslexic, he had trouble in school, served in Vietnam, and is the only member of the group with formal training as a carpenter; he and Jim were the partners who provided the basis for Apple Corps, and they work together closely and comfortably. Alex Ghiselin is a Dartmouth College graduate who has been a journalist and who loves farming more than any other occupation; his carpentering is careful, sometimes almost finicky, to the annoyance of his partners. Ned Krutsky graduated from Earlham College, was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and is perhaps the member of the collective least able to adjust easily to this world; he is also the most meticulous workman and the one who most consistently finds joy in the work. The relationship between Ned and Jim is the most disturbed and uneasy among the builders: Jim wants to make money, while Ned wants to keep their costs to a minimum so that people less affluent than the Souweines can use their services. In all, they are an oddly assorted group, but they have made themselves individually and collectively skilled at their work, and they share a sensitive but justifiable pride in their accomplishments.

From one perspective, the enterprise is bedeviled from the beginning. Because Bill provides a plan without completely detailed specifications, Jim is forced to bid on the job on the basis of hazy estimates. Throughout the process, this situation will cause headaches for all concerned. When Jim and Jonathan meet to discuss the final price, which is to include the builders’ profit, Jonathan insists that the estimate of $146,660 be rounded off to an even $146,000; Jim resists, regarding the demand as a questioning of his ability and his integrity, and Apple Corps seriously considers the idea of canceling the job. The decision to accept the lower price leaves Jim with a bitterness that affects his future dealings with Jonathan. Much later, in the closing stages of construction, this leads to an angry disagreement. The contract had specified #2 pine as the wood to be used for the cornices, which are essential to Bill Rawn’s design; it is a wood that contains knots that will run unless covered by two coats of paint. The cost of #1 knotless pine would have been more, and Jim was sure that Jonathan would not have been willing to spend the extra $1,000 for better wood. Jonathan demands that the builders pay for a second coat of paint, arguing that Jim did not make sufficiently clear the differences between the grades of wood. Jim is not willing to pay the $750 a second coat of paint would cost; citing the contract, he points out that the wood is the grade that was specified and that one coat of paint was specified. Neither side is willing to budge or (as they have done in other disputes) split the difference. After an angry and fruitless confrontation at the site, it is Richard who is angriest:“I have lost complete respect for that guy. I want to have as little to do with him as possible. After the show he put on. All the pressure he’s had on him the last few days. He’s the one with the contract, architect and all that stuff. Big time. Contract doesn’t work out for him now. So he’s gonna be hurt. We’re taking advantage of him.”

In the end, by telephone from a golfing vacation in Scotland, Jonathan tells Judith to agree to pay for the second coat of paint, adding that if he were there he would throw the whole crew off the job. Such disagreements, however, are infrequent.

From another perspective, the process is more an object lesson in how human beings arrive, through complicated and sometimes painfully angry stages, at satisfactory resolutions. Despite their differences, the architect and the builders are equally determined to do the best job possible, unwilling to settle for less than the best or to “cob” any part of the job; whatever their temporary frustrations, the Souweines recognize and respect the skill and craftsmanship that go into the design and building of the house.

It is interesting that, in many of the confrontations among builders, architect, and client, it is Judith Souweine who provides the basis for resolution. She is relaxed enough to be amused by some of the male confrontations. At the same time, she is protective enough of her interests to observe, concerning a dispute over the type of brick to be used in the fireplace, that “this whole business of the hearth was poorly handled by everyone, except for us. We just weren’t given enough information.” Despite her own busy schedule, in the summer she has the time to be around the house and to befriend the Apple Corps carpenters; eventually she builds cabinets in the house and wins some respect from them for her skill. The builders respect both Souweines, but they like Judith. Curiously, the Souweines’ two children almost never appear, but Judith’s father is a presence, and it is he (another lawyer) who negotiates the final compromise.

The one uncertainty in the book is, curiously, the role of Tracy Kidder. He never refers to himself, nor does he say how and in what circumstances he came to know the people involved. Yet he is the unnamed auditor of casual remarks, private outbursts, and observations from all of them, and must therefore have become their confidant as well as an observer. Since it is known from the social sciences as well as the physical sciences that the presence of an observer affects the phenomena observed, it is safe to conclude that Kidder’s presence had an effect on the building of the Souweines’ house, but how and in what ways is never clear.

This is a minor flaw in what is otherwise a fascinating and thorough account. The process it describes is one that hundreds of thousands of contemporary Americans have gone through, without knowing all the fears, irritations, concerns, and satisfactions felt by the other parties to the process. Kidder provides the depth of a sense of history, of the details of construction, of the sources and strengths of materials. He makes clear the inevitability of compromise, and he shows that, at least in this project, compromise can lead to a happy result for all concerned. For in the end, Bill Rawn wins his award, the members of Apple Corps are justifiably proud of their collective workmanship, and the Souweines find the house to be increasingly satisfying and enjoyable as they live in it. House, like the building it studies, is carefully designed, skillfully executed, and both satisfying and enjoyable.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 44

Booklist. LXXXI, August, 1985, p. 1598.

Business Week. October 21, 1985, p. 16.

Glamour. LXXXIII, October, 1985, p. 226.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, July 15, 1985, p. 699.

Library Journal. CX, August, 1985, p. 86.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, October 6, 1985, p. 1.

Newsweek. CVI, October 28, 1985, p. 87.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, August 9, 1985, p. 70.

Time. CXXVI, October 14, 1985, p. 100.

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